Tuesday 27 July 2010

Site of the Week

Just came across this site, called Coming Attractions. If you're into pulp, this is a regularly updated list of all the new pulp re-releases. Conan, Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Phantom, ghost stories from the 1920s, the Man in Purple (you have to be a pulp afficionado to remember that one)...the list goes on and on.

Anyway, savvy folks like you are bound to be aware of this site already but just in case you're not, check it out. The books are a little on the pricey side but well worth it, methinks. It's a joy just checking out the covers.

Friday 23 July 2010

H P Sources

One of the things that I’m really enjoying about running the Call of Cthulhu pbem is the research that’s required to make sure the game is as true to life as is possible (given the need to keep it fun). When I last ran a tabletop CoC game, way back in the 1980s, it was a lot harder to do the research, simply because the internet was unavailable. Now, I can spend an hour or two googling “Doomed Archaeological Expeditions” (and what other game gives you the chance to do that?) or “Brattleboro in the 1920s” and reams of information come pouring out of the computer. I can find out stuff about dance etiquette, the history of coffee, pictures of the glorious (and sadly demolished) Pennsylvania Station of 1920 without having to leave my desk.

I’m not downplaying the role of libraries; indeed, it seems ironic that to research a CoC game before the internet, one had to spend a lot of time in libraries. The odd looks I got from the librarian when I asked to see the Necronomicon! It’s just that the net is now a “Can’t do without” resource if you’re running any sort of historical game (and with all due respect to those who like their Cthulhu 21st century stylie, I prefer the original setting).

For all of us, I think that it’s become a sort of living history lesson, in the most fun possible way. As the campaign is set in January 1920, my NPCs have opinions on the forthcoming Presidential election and are taking sides either for Cox or Harding. And who’s that Assistant Secretary of State for the Navy? Franklin Roosevelt? He shows promise, I think he'll go far. And what of Aleister Crowley, who was in New York until the early part of 1920? Looking for a popular boxer that a player can follow? Jack Dempsey. Dungeonmum’s character is an aviatrix so Google turned up pages of stuff on the female flyers of the early 1920s as inspiration.

I also like to populate my e-mails to the players with pictures from the era to add flavour. I can use a paragraph of the e-mail to describe the bus that is waiting for the characters at the station to take them on to their destination but it is quicker and more atmospheric if I just insert this picture

I stressed earlier the need to keep the game fun. There’s no joy in a totally simulationist style for this; besides, we’re not trying for a wholly faithful recreation of the world of 1920, since the books on which the game is based were not a social history. Lovecraft didn’t feel the need to pepper his stories with period detail because for him, they were not period works but contemporary fiction. Period detail would have held up what for him was happening in the here and now.

The Call of Cthulhu keeper doesn’t have that option unless, as I’ve mentioned above, he chooses to set the adventure in the present day (and even then, rigorous attention to the news is required to keep up with the world as we know it). To make the experience of his players an involving and thrilling one, he needs to leaven the game with just enough detail to transport his players to the era, without loading on so much that the setting then becomes a cage, leaving no room for the actual playing to fly free. The game’s the thing – detail is just another tool to make it an enjoyable experience.

It’s a tough balancing act for a research nerd like me to achieve – all this information does give me an urge to show it off but I have to remember the iceberg principle – 10% visible, 90% the players will probably never even notice (but would notice the lack thereof).

Friday 16 July 2010

Crawling out of the computer - Cthulhu pbem!

For the past two weeks or so, I and three others – Old 4 Eyes, Dungeonmum and Rich Hart from Gaming on the Precipice have been conducting an experiment.

We wanted to know if it was possible to run Call of Cthulhu by e-mail. Given that we live in different countries (and time zones), a live game was out of the question and at least two of us have had great trouble finding players in our locales. Pbem seemed to tick everyone’s boxes – in theory - but would it work in practice?

The experiment has, I am glad to say, been a resounding success. Complete with Chaosium’s Quick Start rules plus (in my case) a Fourth Edition rule book snaffled from ebay for a shockingly low price (woot!) we have been having a whale of a time. For me, it’s almost like having a group of friends sitting round the table with their dice, pencils and paper. To quote Dungeonmum

“This is my first PBEM, got to say what you lose in immediacy you gain in retention of information and the ability to prepare and roleplay properly. I think I'm enjoying the real world setting more than I would a fantasy one, feels like we're really travelling back in time!”

I’m the Keeper for this particular adventure (instigator’s privilege) and possibly more that might follow until the others in the group feel confident about taking up the mantle of Keeper themselves.

Call of Cthulhu is, to my mind, a game that cries out to be run by e-mail. It needs that slow and steady increase in tension and menace. It needs the feel of epistolary communication. It eschews the vulgarities of combat, the administration of which can so often slow a pbem game down.

In order to be able to craft and refine the playing experience, the Keeper needs that little bit more time to prepare, research, polish and finesse his game. In this particular game, I’ve been adding vintage pictures of scenes and characters to give it that period feel.

In terms of game mechanics, I also find that pbem works very well. Players can communicate with each other almost as easily as around a table, and if a player wants to keep discussion between themselves and the Keeper secret, an e-mail is a damn sight more discreet than passing a note or going into another room. Information is written down, readily to hand and speaking of information…

…I’ve also created a wiki on Obsidian Portal, where I am exploring the possibilities. It’s a very good game aid and an excellent resource (thanks to Chgowiz for steering me to it). I’m listing as much as I can in the wiki section so that any other member of the group who wants to run an adventure can refer back to stuff that’s happened previously and is therefore canon.

And I’m also delighted to say that the adventure has an official chronicler – yes, Dungeonmum is blogging up the experiences of her character in her own and most excellent style.

We hope to be able to expand the number of players for the next adventure, so I’ll be looking to recruit a couple more brave investigators who fancy probing the mysteries of the Old Ones and their evil doings.

Saturday 10 July 2010

The Gamer's Year

When I started this blog back in October of last year, the evenings were drawing in and the weather was worsening. In fact, that December we had the coldest winter for years. Ideal conditions to ignore the state of the garden and get the dice out. So I did and the Training Dungeon and the first sessions of the sandbox were the result. I thought to myself that surely, once the summer set in, there would be ample opportunity to get more gaming in, but I was wrong.

In fact, what with holidays at various times from June through to September meaning that at least one of the players is always away, the fine weather meaning that there is no excuse not to get on with the garden and the tendency of families to decide the weekend is too good to waste, so let's do X, Y & Z (but not D&D) it's a wonder any gaming gets done once the summer is here.

Yet clearly some of us do get game. Which leads me to the question of the day - which is the best season for gaming? I'll set up a poll for it and I'd be interested to see what it tells us.

(as an aside, apologies for not posting more just recently. I have been Busy on a Big Project - more anon - watch this space)

Friday 9 July 2010

The man who kicked the hornets' nest

Thought things had been a bit quiet recently.

Monday 5 July 2010

The last of the Drow

Well, this marks the final figure in the Miniatures Monday series. It's the last photo I've got of figures that I feel are of sufficient interest for me to wax lyrical about either the casting, painting or things inspired by the subject of the figure itself.

Today, we have an all-action Drow with a wickedly sharp dagger and the famous hand-crossbow, scourge of the Underdark. From the look of it, this Drow is, like myself, left-handed. Andy's gone once again for the blue tint to the hair and has brought that blue in again elsewhere on the figure. The sickly purple of the gloves and the lime green of the trousers (or is it hosiery) and the skirt of the tunic remind us again that when you are brought up in darkness, colour is entirely subjective. The sleeves, what can be seen of them, would appear to be a shade that I'd call "Nightfall" if I were a Drow tailor.

One thing I do like about this figure is the face - the look of sneering contempt for Overworlders as they face the wrath of Lolth. Even wholly black, it hints at the evil behind it. In fact, it reminds me of this chap

Yes, Lucius Malfoy is a wannabe Drow.

As I mentioned above, this is the last Miniatures Monday and I've been pondering its replacement. I had thoughts of doing a mini-adventure, scenario or even just some ideas or hooks for each monster in the Monster Manual, one a week - it might be a slightly edited list as I can't think of that many exciting adventures for shriekers, but I'm working on it and we'll have to see what comes of it.

Friday 2 July 2010

Art on Friday - Patrick Nicolle

When I visualise the world of Dungeons and Dragons, it's not the High Mediaeval period that I see. Instead, I tend to picture the heroes and warriors as existing in a kind of magical fantasy Dark Ages, complete with Saxons and Vikings, crumbling ruins of Roman magnificence, hauberks and axes. It's a milieu that appeals to me - fallen empires, tough men hacking out new kingdoms with sword and axe, battles and action aplenty.

One artist who supplied my mind with a plethora of images when I was a young grognard was Patrick "Pat" Nicolle (1907-1995). Born in London, he spent most of his youth in the Midlands. He was a founder member of the Arms and Armour Society at the Tower of London. This fed through into his illustrations for comic strips about the Norman invasion and Robin Hood, giving them an authenticity and feel that others struggle to match. One of his earliest jobs was illustrating for the Boys's Own Paper in the 1930s, and he continued with illustrations and comic strips based on tales of High Adventure until, in the late sixties, he was employed by the children's magazine Look and Learn, a staple of my youth, doing the artwork for countless historical articles and series.

His colourful and highly-detailed style of work is all the more impressive when one considers that Look and Learn was a weekly magazine and the turnaround on these pieces must have been tight to say the least. Yet there is no compromise on the workmanship and the attention to detail.

Sadly, like the magazine in which I first encountered his work, he is no longer with us; another link to a bygone age passes. Yet, as with all great artists, he lives on through his work.

I can't find a specific dedicated site for Nicolle's work but here is the link to the Look and Learn site which will take you straight to his pictures.

What I like about this one is the monk on the far left of the picture. While the others are holding up their holy symbols and raising their arms in prayer, he's scarpering.

Vikings! Don't you just love these guys? Always on the move, looking for new lands and new opportunities for plunder. A bit like most adventuring parties I could mention.

A horde of barbarians gatecrash a Roman dinner scene. I love the expression on the face of the lead axeman.

Big battles, axes, swords, warriors - what's not to like?

Macbeth and the Three Witches - this is a picture full of character, and depicts probably most realistically what Macbeth (fl. 1040) might well have looked like. Gotta love those witches!

A minor diversion into the fourteenth century - despite my earlier comments about mediaevality. Nicolle did plenty of this period as well. The guy with the hammer is so evocative - you can almost hear the crunch as the lump hits home.

More Dark Ages in this one, and it's interesting to note that there are also fyrd men and civilians here, as well as some cool scenes of drakkars at full sail and some more combat action.

This is a picture of an episode just after the Battle of Hastings, in which the Saxons turned and cut some pursuing Normans to bits at a place called the Malfoss or Evil Ditch.

About a quarter of a mile to the north-west of the main battle was a deep gully, today known as Oakwood Gill. It was a series of ditches with very steep banks; covered with brambles and undergrowth, it was almost hidden from the fast-moving Normans as the light faded.

Newly arrived Saxons, too late to influence the battle, took up an orderly defensive shieldwall position on the northern bank of the huge ditches and called to any fleeing fyrdsmen to join them.

They lured the Normans, who did not know the lie of the land, towards them and as the invaders charged over the edge, they somersaulted and tumbled headlong into the ditches. More cavalry followed, unable to see much before them, until the ditches were almost full. Anyone who didn't break their back or neck was put to the sword by the Saxons. Unsurprisingly, this particular engagement did not make it onto the Bayeux Tapestry.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Hooks Apocalypse

Disasters just waiting to happen

Much is made of the idea that D&D is a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s true that many campaign worlds are littered with the ruins of civilisations that fell in some unspecified way. And if they can go, what’s stopping the current incumbent from going in a similar fashion?

A good disaster can really make life difficult for the party (and to be fair, that’s what DMs are there for, isn’t it?) I’ve come up with a few mega-disasters and some nightmare scenarios that a particularly sadistic DM might want to inflict on his hapless party. Some of the suggestions may well merge into others or lead to even worse developments. Others might be temporary as the party struggles to put right what has gone so very, very wrong.

An interesting idea is to have premonitions of the impending doom that’s coming to your campaign. The nutty guy at the street corner who proclaims that the end of the world is nigh may well be right this time. For sure, the party might not be able to do anything about it, but a little advance warning is always a handy thing. It might give them a chance to enrol on that course on Basic Ark Building, for example.

1) Meteorite – it’s huge and it’s coming this way

So what’s it going to do to your campaign? (assuming that Bruce Willis isn't available) Well, let’s see. First there is the impact. Anything within dozens to hundreds of miles of the impact is going to be vaporised. Then there is the blast wave that will flatten more or less anything standing for hundreds of miles beyond that. Then there is the fallout, as the clouds of ash and dust are sent into the atmosphere. Plants will die, the temperature will fall, life will grind slowly to a halt.
But a couple of years after that, the skies will slowly clear. What will the renewed sunlight show? Apart from a huge hole in the ground where the city used to be?
Consider that there are a lot of creatures who don’t like the sunlight and because of that, tend to live underground. For them the world after the impact may well be a perfect opportunity to get out onto the surface and party. Those pesky humans, or what’s left of them, will be so shattered and stunned that they won’t be able to mount a worthwhile defence.
Did I mention that a meteorite impact is also the perfect opportunity to redraw those areas of coastline that you really didn’t like. If the impact site is at sea, the tidal waves will be colossal.

2) Plague – bring out your dead

The Black Death of 1348-50 had far-reaching effects on the countries across which it raged. It’s estimated that perhaps 40% of the population died. With so few peasants to till the land, greater value was placed on labour and those who survived would be able to dictate the terms of their service to landowners desperate for workers. In fact, the plague was another nail in the coffin of the Feudal System. Towns grew bigger as people moved there in search of work, food and safety.
It is also likely that any big plague may have detrimental effects on the established religions of the campaign world. Those that may have prided themselves on protecting and helping may have few if any answers in the face of such a catastrophe. Different gods may move into the vacuum and use the chaos and disillusionment to establish their own power bases.
Of course, this is working on the assumption that it is a death plague that stalks the land. But what if the plague’s effects are non-lethal but nevertheless quite horrific? What if the disease turns its victims into cannibals? Or mutates them into monsters unlike any that the world has seen?
What might this do to the campaign world? Well apart from the obvious, there is going to be a fear of strangers who might well be coming to spread the plague. And what of the rumours that foreigners or demi-humans are poisoning the wells with plague so that the humans will be killed off, leaving the world for others? All bunkum of course, but what if it’s true in a campaign world? And of course, desperate times lead to desperate people, all willing to believe any crackpot cure hypothesis if the person proposing it is persuasive enough.
A plague is handy for sweeping old societal models away and ushering in brave new worlds in which the party can, with a bit of wit, luck and sharp swords, take control of matters and mould the new world to their liking.

3) Animal plague – all animals of a particular type die, or maybe they all die!

A mediaeval society or indeed any society of the world before the industrial revolution relied heavily on animals for food, war, work etc. What might happen if a species-specific plague wiped out all the horses? What might happen to the economy and the speed of travel? Wars would be fought on foot. Journeys would be made at walking pace.
If the plague hit cattle, pigs or sheep, milk and meat production would be wiped out; the population would become vegetarian or starve. If there was insufficient vegetable production, food riots may well ensue.
Or it might be that the plague hits all types of animal. Granted, humans are animals, so we might need to be a bit more specific. Remember the foot and mouth outbreak of a few years ago and how the slaughtermen were working overtime. In that case, foot and mouth disease is primarily a non-fatal disease and the slaughter was aimed primarily at preventing the spread of the disease and its effect on milk production. But what if the plague in question was fatal and dramatic measures were required to halt it?

4) Magic ceases to work

"Because this is all we've got now"

Magic. Handy thing to have around. Makes light work of most dungeon environments. So what if, for some unknown reason, magic stopped working. Kind of tricky, huh? Suddenly, mages are just sad men in dresses and power devolves to the strong and their swords. It stands to reason that the magic users are going to want that back, big time. They’ll be looking for the reason why the mojo is gone and the party are going to be flavour of the month if they can come up with the answer.
It would also be very interesting if divine magic was unaffected by the cessation. Religion would certainly get a lot more adherents if the pointy-hats were feeling a little…under the weather.
Meanwhile, all those magic users who ever used their power to lord it over the rest of us had better start running.

5) Flood – get building that boat

Be it the slow but steady rise of the sea levels over months if not years, or a tidal wave that inundates low lying areas or perhaps some sort of divine punishment, or even an Atlantean style catastrophe, seeing one’s home country disappear under the waves can be a traumatic thing to have to see. Remember Waterworld? Oh go on, remember it. A quest for dry land can be a powerful motivator and suddenly to find oneself afloat on a hostile sea is a whole new ball game when it comes to adventures. You get to use that Ocean encounter table at last.
The boats are going to get very big. Entire communities afloat, fending off sea creatures, hungry cormorants, pirates, other hungry survivors.

6) Volcano! That thing makes Krakatoa look small

75,000 years ago, the Toba eruption nearly wiped out Homo Sapiens. The Deccan Traps are believed to have erupted over hundreds of thousands of years. You can imagine what might happen if a really big volcano decided to blow its top. Remember the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone? If that thing goes off, it could cover half the US in feet of ash. That’s going to make a real difference to the campaign world. Ash can choke, ash can collapse buildings as it piles up. What happens if the party gets trapped in a dungeon that used to exit to the open but is buried under metres of pumice?
And if pyroclastic flow can’t be outrun by a man on a horse, it definitely can’t be outrun by a bunch of adventurers all weighed down with armour. And gold.

7) Revolution – to the guillotine with all enemies of the people

Popular uprisings are great for overturning the established order. They’re often bloody, vicious and without mercy. Friends become enemies, fathers betray sons, the axeman is never out of work. Your campaign world is crying out for a revolution. If a revolution is not enough, you can then have a counter-revolution. Other countries will be only too pleased to meddle in the chaos if it gets them more influence with whoever wins. The only thing more fun than a revolution is watching the party trying desperately to decide which side they’re on.

8) War – just plain fighting.

Peace sucks. Your country would look a whole lot better with someone else's army walking the streets.
War breaks out and everyone must pitch in to help the nation. That includes the party, whether they want to or not.
And of course war eventually means one side wins and the other side loses. The losing side gets thrashed, those with suspect loyalty get executed, populations get sold into slavery to pay the bills. And what about all those lovely works of art and valuables in the Royal Palaces? They’ll be on carts heading back to the conqueror’s capital now. Carts are a whole lot easier to rob than heavily fortified Royal Palaces. And of course, the fighting doesn’t just end with the conquest. Foreign occupation means resistance by those still loyal to the old order. There’s nothing quite so hard as a die-hard.

9) Zombie horde attacks!

Brains! Brains! There are of course two options with this one. First is the “Graves break open and out come those rotting corpses” one, with the living having to fight off the dead. Second is the “Everyone is turning into zombies and I don’t know who’s next”. I really can’t make up my mind which is more fun, so why not combine the two and have the invading zombie horde from the underworld contagious with it?
Of course with all these undead walking (or should I say shambling) the streets, clerics are going to be in big demand. I mean, they can turn zombies. But only so many of them...

10) Dark Lord arrives with thousands of minions.

For aeons, the minions of the Dark One have been labouring towards his return. Usually, the forces of good manage to stop them but the forces of good were clearly busy today as guess who’s back? Now an immensely powerful incarnation of evil is stalking the land, rallying anyone even remotely unpleasant to his standard. And no kid with glasses and a lightning bolt scar is going to get in his way this time. Delaying the public enquiry until after the Dark Lord is defeated, the forces of good have some serious catching-up to do, starting on the back foot.

11) Police state overnight – your co-operation will ensure freedom is restored as soon as convenient

Some national emergency or other threat to life, liberty and the prosperity of the land-owning classes means that normal society has been replaced by something that makes the Gestapo look like the Teletubbies. People are being arrested left right and centre, the door knockers are going off at midnight and Curfews are the new black. Camps are filling up, sinister holes are being dug in secluded woodland and the spell-using classes are being requested to use their mind-reading powers for the good of the State. Is the party a bunch of Winston Smiths or are they on the side of the jackbooted ones?

12) New ice age – brrrr!

It probably won’t happen as quickly as the Day after Tomorrow but who could resist a continent-wide cold snap that makes the campaign world one huge Frost Giant and White Dragon theme park? Does the party know how to survive when it’s twenty below? There are all sorts of ways that people can suffer when it gets really really cold. You owe it to the party to ensure that they experience every single one of them.

13) Huge crop failure – no food!

A famine strikes the major crop of the nation/region/continent. Perhaps some guy in a Technicolor dreamcoat had a dream about some cows and the King was perspicacious enough to lay down stocks. Or maybe it takes everyone by surprise and now there’s a horde of hungry peasants lynching every hoarder they can find. Lean times make for interesting opportunities for those who are used to fighting and taking. Let’s not forget that the party has to eat as well. In fact, stored food could become the new currency.

14) Ethnic strife – rivers of blood and more!

For some unknown reason, the population has turned against one particular group, either another ethnic minority or perhaps a particular type of demi-human. Tempting though it is to make it the hobbits again, why not decide that this time, people assume that anyone with pointy ears whose race rhymes with ‘self’ is an agent of the devil? The half-elves might have to prove their loyalty or face dire punishments, internment or worse. Or it could be that a King has realised that those runty beardy dwarves have a lot of precious metal and gems and he’d very much like to get his hands on them.

15) Humanoids come out of nowhere and overrun the kingdom

Those pesky humanoids. Usually they lurk underground or many hundreds of miles away, on their side of a line that says Borderlands. Only now something’s got them on the move; yes, in the same way that Europe fared so well against the Huns and the Mongols, your campaign world is going to have to stand up to a concerted attack by an enemy that hasn’t committed to a vision of civilised values and progress. They don’t fight fair, either. The party are going to be heading up the resistance for the foreseeable future. Think the beleaguered humans from the first Terminator movie. But with orcs.

16) Dragons! Thousands of them!

You thought they were birds but they’re so much bigger. Something has woken them up and now a cloud of dragons that blots out the sun is heading straight for the campaign world’s major population centres. Who can stop them? Probably not the party but it’ll be fun to watch them try. Suddenly the Orbs of Dragonkind are top of the Quest list.

17) The sun is going out!

It’s getting dimmer month by month. It looks feeble when it rises and when it sets, it’s with a sigh of relief. Plants are starting to wither, the days are getting colder. Has someone forgotten to make a sacrifice somewhere? Short of sending a huge ship into space with a burning lump of coal (although if you like Spelljammer, this is a go project), all suggestions seem rational. Can the party find out how to get Mr Sun burning again before he finally goes out altogether?

18) It's getting hotter and hotter! Pretty soon, things are going to start burning!

The exact opposite of the previous one. Mr Sun is getting angry – temperatures are increasing and deserts are spreading out into what was once fertile land. Water will become a precious resource. Fires start almost spontaneously. I don’t even want to think about what’ll happen to the ice caps. At least the rising sea levels will put out the fires.

19) Animals/insects/birds turn nasty and start to attack

The good thing about the wilderness is that you can always leave it behind and get back to civilisation. Where animals know their place and things are safe. Unless, of course, nature turns nasty (perhaps thanks to an irritated or vengeful druidic order) and our feathered/furry/buzzing friends decide to mount an attack. You never knew there were so many of them until the point at which they all started heading for you at the same time. Yes, you could run but they’re probably faster, better at scenting you out and have sharper teeth and claws. The Monster Manual has stats for them all.

20) Banking collapse!

Tying it all in nicely with my previous bunch of hooks, the main bank of the country in which the party live/adventure/hang out/spend their loot has just done a Lehmann Brothers and now the nice, trustworthy manager who assured the party their gold was safe with him is carrying his stuff round the streets in a cardboard box. No-one knows what’s happened to their money, prices have gone all Weimar Republic and those Unity through Strength guys are waiting in the nearest bierkeller.